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Massey Psychologist Explores Best Start for Babies

Massey Psychologist Explores Best Start for Babies

Giving babies the best start in life to prevent problems later on is the focus of a doctoral study by a Massey University psychology researcher who is offering free parenting workshops for new parents.

Leith Pugmire is heading the Parenting from the Start project in the Manawatū, and is inviting first-time mothers as well as those having second or subsequent babies to take part in her workshops as part of a study on the importance of early experiences and parent-child relationships.

Her ultimate goal is: “to better support local parents and to capture vital information relating to the first year of life – a time of intense early development that provides either a strong or a weak foundation for future psychological and physical health.”

Ms Pugmire, who trained as a clinical psychologist and worked for several community agencies before starting this research, observed the challenges biological and foster families face if the children in their care have a tough start.

“We know that we’d get better outcomes if we supported parents right from the start rather than waiting for problems to occur, but that’s still not where we focus our efforts,” says Ms Pugmire.

Having children of her own highlighted how confusing and contradictory much of the parenting advice can be. She perceived there to be a niche for good quality evidence-based information to build on what was provided in antenatal classes.

“In my experience, parents want to do the best they can for their kids. People were crying out for additional information so that they could make informed choices during that early period.”

The Parenting from the Start courses highlight evidence-based information about early brain development, attachment, and the choices parents can make that affect child outcomes. Videos, discussions, presentations, and hands-on activities help expectant parents and their support people reflect on topics such as infant feeding, sleep, and whether to leave a baby to cry. “We don’t want to tell people what to do – we want to empower them to make the choices that are best for their family,” she says.

Realistic imitation babies were developed for the workshops, so that new parents get to experience what it feels like to hold and carry a new baby, and try out techniques used in different cultures. “Our aim was to go beyond Pākehā ideas about parenting to explore the beautiful caregiving practices used by Māori at the time of first contact, as well as other peoples around the world.”

US study a catalyst

Her research was partly sparked by a US study comparing the impact of gifting various parenting tools to new mothers. Researchers discovered that some had profound effects on babies and parents, reducing crying and doubling the rates of secure attachment. The results of this simple, inexpensive intervention “blew me away”, says Ms Pugmire.

Nobody had replicated the study – and what resonated with her was that similar practices and tools were present in traditional Māori parenting. Participants in her study will be gifted resources along the same lines, and followed from pregnancy until their baby is 12 to 15 months old to evaluate the workshop and free resources as determinants of future wellbeing.

She will use the gold standard test for assessing child-parent attachment, called the Strange Situation Procedure, developed by American psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s. It involves videoed observations of one-year-olds with and without their caregiver and in the presence of a ‘stranger’. It has not been widely used in New Zealand, despite being cross-culturally applicable, she says, because of the overseas training required to use the measure. Ms Pugmire and a research assistant completed the training in the method at the University of Minnesota in 2016.

Creating a strong foundation for future wellbeing

Since she ran a pilot workshop earlier this year, demand from the community inspired her to open the study to more mothers.

“Experienced parents and even health professionals who attended the pilot workshop told us the content on child development, traditional Māori caregiving, and early parenting choices was really useful and relevant despite their prior knowledge, so we’ve acted on that positive feedback,” says Pugmire.

“Experiences during the early months and years are important because they lay the groundwork for later development”, says Ms Pugmire. “Positive early experiences increase resilience, and help children to reach their full potential.”

People who sign up for the study will complete two follow-up assessments when their babies are approximately four to six and 12 to 15 months old, and attend a one-day parenting course with free take-home resources. Partners, whānau, and support people are encouraged to come along, and all food is provided.

To be eligible for the study, participants must be pregnant, live within an hour’s drive of Palmerston North, and be able to read and write in English. Recruitment is open until the end of 2017 and is limited to the first 200 women who enrol.


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